William Henry “Chick” Webb (February 10, 1905 – June 16, 1939) was an American jazz and swing music drummer as well as a band leader.
Webb was born in Baltimore, Maryland, to William H. and Marie Webb. From childhood, he suffered from tuberculosis of the spine, leaving him with short stature and a badly deformed spine; which caused him to appear hunchbacked. The idea of playing an instrument was suggested by his doctor to “loosen up” his bones. He supported himself as a newspaper boy to save enough money to buy drums, and first played professionally at age 11. Webb had three sisters: Bessie, Mabel and Ethel. Mabel married Wilbur Porter around 1928.
At the age of 17 he moved to New York City and by 1926 was leading his own band in Harlem. Jazz drummer Tommy Benford said he gave Webb drum lessons when he first reached New York.
He alternated between band tours and residencies at New York City clubs through the late 1920s. In 1931, his band became the house band at the Savoy Ballroom. He became one of the best-regarded bandleaders and drummers of the new “swing” style. Drummer Buddy Rich cited Webb’s powerful technique and virtuoso performances as heavily influential on his own drumming, and even referred to Webb as “the daddy of them all”. Webb was unable to read music, and instead memorized the arrangements played by the band and conducted from a platform in the center. He used custom-made pedals, goose-neck cymbal holders, a 28-inch bass drum and other percussion instruments.
Although his band was not as influential, it was feared in the battle of the bands. The Savoy often featured “Battle of the Bands” where Webb’s band would compete with other top bands, such as the Benny Goodman Orchestra or the Count Basie Orchestra. By the end of the night’s battles the dancers seemed always to have voted Webb’s band as the best. Webb lost to Duke Ellington in 1937. Although a judge declared Webb’s band the official winner in 1938 over Count Basie’s, and Basie himself said he was relieved to come away from the contest without embarrassing himself, surviving musicians continued to dispute the ruling for decades.
Webb married Martha Loretta Ferguson (also known as “Sally”), and in 1935 he began featuring a teenaged Ella Fitzgerald as a vocalist. Together Chick and Ella would electrify the Swing Era of jazz with hits such as “A-Tisket a Tasket”, which was composed by Van Alexander at Fitzgerald’s request. Despite rumors to the contrary, “Ella was not adopted by Webb, nor did she live with him and his wife, Sally,” according to Stuart Nicholson in his Fitzgerald biography.